Soviet power won the first Euros of 1960

THE European Championships have become the second most important international football competition after the World Cup, although you could argue that the UEFA Champions League is doing its best to overtake both. In the first of a new series, Game of the People looks at some of the great Euros, starting with the very first.

In 1960, with the cold war simmering away and tension building – culminating in the Cuban missile crisis and the erection of the Berlin Wall –  politicans were desperately trying to build unity across Europe. Two world wars had, after all, originated and had been at their most brutal, in Europe.

Some well-meaning individuals saw football as a means of bringing Europe together. The French, who had watched their country being torn apart during both global conflicts, were – understandably – at the root of many unifying ideas. Jules Rimet had been the instigator of the World Cup and other French administrators and journalists had been advocates of pan-European club competitions.

Henri Delaunay had first tabled the concept of an international competition for European national teams in 1927. It was not until 1954 that the idea took seed, though and once UEFA was formed, it was decided to kick-off the European Nations Cup for 1958-60.

The first European Nations Cup was affected by East-West discomfort

Not everyone wanted to join the party. There were still some old wounds to heal from the second world war. England – never quick to join in – Germany and Italy declined to take part. England were only 10 years into FIFA World Cup participation, and had made a mess of their 1950 campaign in Brazil.

The Soviet Union was keen to show that communist deals and commitment to health, sport and virility was superior to the west. Sport could be used as a propaganda tool. Only 17 nations took part in Euro 1960: Ireland, Czechoslavakia, USSR, Hungary, France, Greece, Romania, Turkey, Norway, Austria, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, East Germany, Portugal, Poland, Spain and Denmark. The competition was played on a knock-out basis.

It was clear from the start that the Soviets were taking the European Nations Cup seriously. Their first round tie was against Hungary, and was often the case, the Hungarians lost to their overlords. Over 100,000 people saw USSR beat Hungary in the first leg in Moscow, the second leg being a 1-0 win for the Magyars.

France, who had thrilled people in the 1958 World Cup, easily disposed of Greece, 7-1 in Paris, with Just Fontaine and Raymond Kopa on the scoresheet. Both the USSR and France, along with star-studded Spain were considered to be favourites to lift the inaugural European Nations Cup. In Sweden, France had finished third while the Soviets had reached the last eight.

Almost half of the USSR’s team had featured in the 1956 Olympics, coached by Gavril Kachalin, a wily Muscovite who played for Dynamo during World War Two. Kachalin’s squad for the 1960 European Championship was built around Moscow sides, but he also included players from Rostov and Tbilisi.

There was plenty of energy and talent in the USSR side, but they also enjoyed some good fortune. In the quarter-finals, they were drawn to meet Spain. Then under the Franco regime, Spain’s football team was ordered to return home before facing the Soviets. Franco recalled that during the bitter Spanish civil war, Russians had fought against the army. Spanish football chief Alfonso de la Fuente Chaos tried to intervene, even suggesting a neutral ground for the tie, but Franco was firm in his view that the national team should not face the USSR. Spain, who had a team packed with talented players like Alfredo di Stefano, Paco Gento, Luis Suarez and Laszlo Kubala, duly withdrew, allowing Kachalin’s team to pass straight into the semi-finals. Spain missed the chance to really impress upon the continent the power of their football, at a time when Real Madrid were at their brilliant best.

France trounced Austria 9-4 on aggregate, including a 5-2 win in the Stade de Colombes, a game that saw Fontaine score a hat-trick. Yugoslavia and Czechoslavakia also reached the last four, beating Portugal and Romania respectively.

The semi-finals and final would be held in France. The host nation would ordinarily be classed as favourites, but they had been shorn of both Raymond Kopa and Just Fontaine through injury and retirement. They met Yugoslavia in a cliché-ridden “nine-goal thriller in Parc de Princes. France led 4-2 with 28 minutes to go, but three goals in five minutes – including two from Dinamo Zagreb forward Drazan Jerkovic, gave the Yugoslavs a 5-4 win. Meanwhile, in Marseille, the USSR easily disposed of the Czechs 3-0.

The final, played on July 10 1960 in Paris, was a meeting of the 1956 Olympic football champions and the team that would succeed them that year. Yugoslavia had no less than eight of the team that would win gold in Rome.

Partizan Belgrade striker Milan Galic gave Yugoslavia the lead in the 43rd minute of the game, but four minutes into the second half, Slava Metreveli of Torpedo Moscow equalised for the USSR.

The game went into extra time, and with seven minutes to go, Viktor Ponedelnik headed the ball past a static, and no doubt tired, Yugoslav defence to win the game. Back in Moscow and other Soviet cities, football fans listened to the triumph on the radio. Ponedelnik, speaking some years after the game, commented: “They said that in Moscow there wasn’t one dark window. In every city … nobody slept, the army never slept, citizens didn’t sleep, everyone sat and listened. When they told us about that, we literally had tears in our eyes.”

Some say that this was the Soviet Union’s greatest football achievement, and although the competition was in its infancy and still to gain credibility, the record books will suggest that this was indeed the pinnacle for the USSR. Between 1958 and 1970 they were certainly among the most consistent nations: 1958 WC QF; 1960 EC winners; 1962 WC QF; 1964 EC final; 1966 WC 3rd; 1968 EC 4th; 1970 WC QF.

Yashin: “The joy of seeing Yuri Gagarin flying in space is only superseded by the joy of a good penalty save” (from later in his career)

The 1960 team contained some legends of Soviet football. Lev Yashin was arguably one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time while Igor Netto, the skipper, to many commentators, represented “the heart and soul of Russian football”. Mikheil Meskhi, who played for Dinamo Tbilisi, was nicknamed “the Georgian Garrincha” and Valentin Ivanov of Torpedo was one of the greatest goalscorers in the Soviet game.

After the game in Paris, Real Madrid’s president, Santiago Bernabeau, who had been watching the final, brandished his cheque book and offered to sign half the USSR team for the undisputed leaders in European club football. But there was no way that any of the newly-crowned international champions were going anywhere – the KGB were always in close attendance.

Many people felt the Soviet Union could have done better on the world stage. Technically, they had some extremely gifted players and their teams were always well-drilled. But there was also a theory that the over-emphasis on the Olympic games hampered genuine progress on the football field. Furthermore, the fact that the football season in the USSR, mostly for climatic reasons, was out of sync with the rest of Europe, was also seen as a disadvantage.

That didn’t stop them being crowned the first European champions in 1960. The European Championship was underway!

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It’s 1960, and there’s a European Super League

THE SUBJECT of a European Super League has been mooted on a number of occasions down the decades. After world war two, football became something of an emollient, a universal language that could unite nations and put aside old differences. To some extent, the creation of pan-European bodies, industrially, culturally or socially, was a way to ensure the continent didn’t beat itself up – after all, the two world wars were basically European conflicts that grew out of all proportion. Therefore, interdependency would make it pointless to go to war with your economic partners. Football was one way that healthy nationalism could express itself. 

The Treaty of Rome, signed in 1957, came at a time when UEFA’s club competitions were gathering momentum and enthusiasm for the European Cup, in particular, was rising at a rapid rate. Attendances were very healthy, with average gates hitting the high 30,000s throughout the competition’s first five years. In 1960, almost 128,000 people watched the  classic final between Real Madrid and Eintracht Frankfurt.


By comparison, the European Nations Cup, later to be named the European Championship, had a modest start in 1960, with only 17,000 watching the first final between the USSR and Yugoslavia. The fact it was an all-Communist affair, in the height of the Cold War, was a major reason for such a disappointing turnout in Paris, but club football had definitely captured the imagination of Europe’s fans.

The Mitropa Cup and Latin Cup had driven the appetite for such competitions and for many years, the quality and excitement of the European Cup was enough to carry its development through to the 1960s. Unsurprisingly, talk of a European League was often the topic of debate of footballing intellectuals eager to promote further integration and a European Union. Most people realised t it would not all be milk and honey as the most exciting and progressive tournaments will have their drudgery and meaningless matches. Why travel to France, Italy or Spain to see a “dead rubber”?

However, if the concept of a European Super League was tabled in 1960, what would it have looked like? Compared to today, there would be a number of clubs that have had their moments but are no longer as relevant in the modern game. Some big names are in danger in the 21st century of slipping from view, but in 1960, they were part of the influential band of clubs that rose to prominence with the emergence of industrialised football.

Let’s examine what a super league in 1960 might have looked like. Real Madrid, inevitably, would be the first name on the list. Indeed, you could imagine the European Cup winners between 1956 and 1960 would be a huge advocate of an elitist competition, as they would surely be today. Real were in their pomp in that period and considered to be the finest ambassador Spain had. Their president, Santiago Bernabeu, was a big supporter of the UEFA competitions and of player movement – Real were always shopping in South America for players and their appeal was built on their early successes in Europe. Barcelona, while in Real’s shadow, were still powerful enough to become part of any European project, but they were not as convinced about the future of such ventures.

Italian clubs didn’t start to win the European Cup until 1963, but AC Milan, Juventus and Fiorentina were all very strong in 1960. Germany was still some way off producing the sort of teams it became renowned for, well organised, professional and focused. But in 1960, Eintracht Frankfurt showed what a good unit they were in reaching the European Cup final, losing 7-3 to Real Madrid but trouncing a very impressive Glasgow Rangers side on the way. Both Frankfurt and Rangers would have been in anyone’s idea of a European league at the time. Clubs from the low countries such as in the Netherlands and Belgium, were also lacking in competitiveness at the time. Austrian football may have passed its 1930s peak, but a team like Rapid Vienna would have the cachet and heritage to earn a place in the league.


As for England, Manchester United and Wolverhampton Wanderers were the teams of the day, although United were much weaker than they had been three years earlier prior to their vibrant young team dying in the snow at Munich airport. For that reason, United might not have been invited to join the league and perhaps Tottenham would have taken their place.

If the league had been formed in 1961, Spurs would have been included given they had won the double. Wolves were league champions in 1958 and 1959 and were FA Cup winners in 1960, so they were the strongest team in England. Moreover, they were accustomed to playing continental teams and it was their “champions of the world” claim after one floodlit friendly that was the catalyst for the formation of the European Cup.

Benfica were approaching their finest period as a European contender in 1960, so there is no doubt they would be natural contenders. Two years on, they would be regarded as the best club side in the world. Porto could also have staked a claim for a place among the premier clubs.

France’s Reims were beaten in two finals in the first four years of the European Cup and had some fine players, notably Raymond Kopa, who would join Real Madrid, and Just Fontaine, the leading scorer in the 1958 World Cup. Nice were also a power in France, winning Ligue 1 three times in five years and reaching the last eight of the European Cup twice.

Eastern bloc clubs would also be invited to ensure there was balance and some diplomacy in the structure of a European Super League. Dynamo Moscow, three times Russian champions in the period up to 1960, would be ideal candidates, especially as their team included the famous and much-loved goalkeeper Lev Yashin (pictured). In all probability, the Russians would have declined to enter.

Yugoslavia’s Red Star Belgrade and Czechoslavakia’s Dukla Prague would also be possible entrants and if the Hungarian revolution had not got in the way, Honved would undoubtedly have represented the mighty Magyars.

So there you have it, a fictional European Super League – just one way of slicing-up European football. Here’s the final table for the 1960-61 season:
1- Real Madrid; 2- AC Milan; 3- Benfica; 4 – Tottenham; 5- Barcelona; 6 – Dynamo Moscow; 7 – Juventus; 8 – Fiorentina; 9 – Rangers; 10 – Red Star Belgrade; 11 – Wolves; 12 – Reims; 13- Rapid Vienna; 14- Dukla Prague; 15- Nice; 16 – Frankfurt.